With the Bush administration citing racial profiling as a priority, conversations about the need to make the law truly colorblind are increasingly audible. From an empirical standpoint, however, the mental health impact of racial profiling--defined as police or security officials' illicit reliance upon racial stereotypes to target, search or detain people for criminal activity--remains yet unknown.

But psychologists are closing in on this knowledge gap, working to identify and help heal the social chasms and emotional scars. Ways psychologists are bolstering their efforts to address racial profiling will be the focus of the APA Annual Convention symposium "Racial profiling: a psychological exploration," which will take place on Friday, Aug. 24, from 10 to 11:50 a.m.

APA's Committee on Urban Initiatives has assembled a diverse panel to bring policy, research, intervention and law-enforcement perspectives to the discussion of the roles psychologists can play in heightening awareness and ending racial profiling.

The need for psychologists

From the university to Capitol Hill, from community workers to clinical psychologists, "racial profiling is a problem all of us can have a role in solving," says symposium discussant Ellen Scrivner, PhD, deputy director at the U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services Office.

"Racial profiling can't be solved in a vacuum," she says, "and thus we will have all facets of psychology and law enforcement at the table."

Indeed, Purdue University psychology professor David Rollock, PhD, who chaired a symposium on racial profiling last year, says there are many empty seats at that table that psychologists can fill by:

  • Gathering epidemiological data and clinical anecdotes that define symptoms in the aftermath of racial profiling.

  • Collaborating with law enforcement officials and community workers to evaluate how racial profiling affects the communities they serve.

  • Categorizing law and security enforcement misconduct so that intervention efforts can be better targeted.

  • Enhancing police training with respect to cultural competence.

Psychologists' statistical skills, for example, can improve data collection on police traffic stops, currently a leading prescription for curbing racial profiling. "We can help rectify the lack of an adequate baseline for comparing car stops," Scrivner says.

The importance of balancing such fine points with an understanding of the consequences of racial profiling will be discussed at the symposium by Tom Tyler, PhD, of New York University. His contribution, "Understanding how citizens view police behavior," will focus on "how damaging it is for a minority person to be stopped because of race, and how it hurts relations between police and the minority community," he says.

Tyler perceives that the balance of power so evident in racial profiling can lead to a vicious cycle of mistrust and violence. "If someone is stopped for a minor reason that they attribute to their race," he explains, "they may become defiant, hostility escalates and the police could even end up killing someone."

Subsequently, the swelling tide of mutual suspicion makes crime prevention more difficult for police. "How the police can create trust and communicate fairness is something psychologists can research," says Tyler.

Psychology tackles the tough questions

Proponents of allowing race to be factor in whether to search an individual say their positions are justified by crime statistics. But distinctions between what numbers really mean, and could faultily infer, easily are blurred, says Tyler. For example, he says, although race itself does not predict being a criminal, "poverty predicts being a criminal and minorities are more likely to be poor."

Psychologists, with their understandings of both statistical and behavioral analyses, are needed to clarify such nuances. Symposium speaker Jennifer Eberhardt, PhD, of Stanford University, will address this area in her presentation, "The faces of criminality." Eberhardt studies the correlation between racially stereotypical features and perceptions of criminality, especially among African-American faces.

Racial assumption is an area ripe for social psychologists like Eberhardt. "We can offer a more thorough analysis of attitudes and perceptions--attack it and make progress on a variety of levels," she says.

On the public policy level, for example, Natacha Blain, JD, PhD, counsel to U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D­Ill.), will offer the symposium her insights on prospective mandates to effect nondiscriminatory law enforcement nationwide in "Racial profiling: a public policy perspective."

Attendees will also hear from law enforcement itself: San Francisco Police Chief Fred Lau will explain how psychologists are helping his department safeguard against racial profiling in "How psychologists can help law enforcement."

This intermingling of psychology, policy and law enforcement promises to create a comprehensive vision of how these groups can collaborate to alleviate racial profiling. "This symposium will be of value to both our colleagues in psychology and those with an interest in police integrity," says symposium chair Roderick Watts, PhD, of Georgia State University. "It will remind our colleagues of how the field can aid in the understanding and amelioration of social problems, while leaders in law enforcement will see how the skills of psychologists go far beyond psychological testing and screening."

Further Reading

  • The pending bills addressing racial profiling, the Traffic Stops Study Act (S. 821) and the Reasonable Search Standards Act (S. 2393), were read twice in the 106th Congress and respectively referred to the Judiciary and Finance committees. Find their updated histories at www.congress.gov.

  • The American Civil Liberties Union has comprehensive information on racial profiling, including special reports and campaign details, at www.aclu.org/profiling/index.html.